Afghanistan is the trial by fire of the Switchblade, AeroVironment’s much-hyped miniature mashup of drone and missile. Most killer drones are designed like aircraft and fire missiles at a target. The Switchblade is the missile.
Unveiled to much fanfare in 2011 — it even got its own weird Taiwanese animation — as of last fall, Army soldiers in Afghanistan had yet to use the six-pound Switchblade they paid some $10 million to procure. But the U.S.-NATO military command there says they’re loving what they’re seeing from it.
“Switchblade is in use in Afghanistan and has proven to be a very effective tool in our campaign,” the 3rd Infantry Division’s Lt. Col. Ben Garrett, a spokesman for U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan, confirms to Danger Room.
But that’s all the military will confirm. It’s not saying anything about “deployment, effectiveness, distribution or tactical employment” of the system, Garrett says, beyond an assurance that the Switchblade is “very effective.” Nothing about how many times it’s been operate; nothing about the breakdown between its surveillance missions and its lethal ones; and certainly nothing about its accuracy.
This is getting to be a thing with the International Security Assistance Force. The U.S.-NATO military command recently opted to stop publishing data on Taliban attacks. Danger Room has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with U.S. Central Command to learn more about the Switchblade.
Still, the specs alone on the Switchblade make it worth watching. Unlike every other drone in military use, the Switchblade only looks like an aircraft once its wings unfold, following a launch from a tube. Once in the air, the Switchblade’s size limits its flight time, but its cameras send a video feed back to a remote operator who could be a dismounted soldier. AeroVironment bills it as a tool for pursuit of an adversary on the move or for close air support-in-a can for troops pinned down by enemy fire. That’s because once a target comes into view, the operator can send the Switchblade on a one-way mission, careening it into an enemy position to detonate. It can also be pre-programmed to hit a set target.
While little battlefield information on the Switchblade has emerged, the Army already wants more than the 75 units it’s sent to Afghanistan, as Danger Room pal Paul McLeary of Defense News reports. Ultimately, the Army wants to acquire a “Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System” of tiny Switchblade-like drones — possibly based on the Switchblade itself — to spot and kill a target from six miles away. Much hinges on just how effective the Switchblade’s trial by fire in Afghanistan actually is.